History of the Bessie Smyth Foundation

Establishment
The Bessie Smyth Foundation was established in July 1977 to provide health care and fertility control services to women and to undertake public research and education which promotes women’s health. It was set up at a time, in the late 1970’s, when activists from the feminist women’s health movement had been working at abortion clinics which were run on a medicalised and hierarchical basis.

Those feminist activists knew from their work with the women they counselled and from their respect for those women, that there was ‘a better way in which to deliver an abortion service’. They knew that abortion services could be run on a wholistic basis, looking at the totality of women’s lives and not just seeing their need for an abortion as an opportunity to make profits.

They could also see that injecting some empathy and compassion into all staff in abortion services would make the woman’s experience on the day a whole lot better. From the receptionist to the counsellor to the doctor to the recovery nurse – everyone affects a woman’s experience of the abortion operation – it is imperative that all staff in abortion services have appropriate training and an understanding of the situations women can find themselves in.

Given that the abortion opertion is, in fact, a simple medical procedure the feminist activists who set up The Bessie Smyth Foundation in the late 1970’s could see that the operation did not need to be provided in a highly medicalised setting. They could see that you could both meet infection control and other standards, yet operate a service which was ‘homey’ and welcoming in its environment and which recognised the reality of women’s lives.

In practical terms this meant saying it was OK for women to bring their children along with them if they had no one to care for the children. It also meant scheduling appointment times at more reasonable woman-friendly times such as 9.45 am rather than the medicalised model of first appointment at 8 am
.

Bessie Smyth Foundation’s Powell Street Clinic

The Bessie Smyth Foundation fulfilled the above objectives by opening up a termination of pregnancy service, known as The Powell Street Clinic, in Homebush on 4th July 1977.

The Powell Street Clinic was run under a system which was very different to other abortion services in that it was non-hierarchical (counsellors had an equal say to the doctors) and the atmosphere was welcoming and homey.

Each woman was seen by a counsellor for a period of 45 to 60 minutes – this allowed adequate time for each woman to have all of her questions and clarifications answered and for her to establish a rapport with the counsellor and to open up to her if she wanted to. Our experience is that most women at the time of making the decision to terminate a pregnancy want support and to not be judged. We provided this in a caring and supportive environment which allowed each woman to be treated with respect and dignity.

The counsellor then accompanied the woman through surgery, providing theatre assistant support to our doctors and continued support to the client.


Information, information, information


Each client not only had information about the procedure, the risks and complications and the aftercare explained to her in detail by our counsellors, she also was provided with written information as we recognised that sometimes women were so overwhelmed that they could not really take in, and understand, the verbal information provided.

Many Languages

We provided all of our information in 13 languages as well as in English. Our counsellors were trained in the additional skills required to undertake pregnancy decision-making counselling or abortion counselling by phone or face-to-face with an interpreter.


In addition to information about the abortion operation we provided comprehensive information and advice about all methods of contraception and referral, if necessary, to other services for women.


We provided this service for a little over 25 years from the same premises in Homebush, working hard over those years to turn the building into a truly friendly and welcoming environment for our clients and their support people.


OUR PHILSOPHY WHILST WE MANAGED A TERMINATION OF PREGNANCY SERVICE

The Powell Street Clinic was run with a philosophy that it was a SERVICE not a clinic! A service to meet the needs of woman when making a decision about a pregnancy; a service to meet the needs of women for empathic, non-judgemental, supportive care whilst implementing their decision if their decision was to have a termination of pregnancy.

The other element of our philosophy was that no woman would be turned away if she did not have the money to pay for the operation – as this was well known amongst fellow abortion providers and women’s health and welfare agencies, it would be true to say that Bessie saw a higher proportion of low-income and disadvantaged women because of referral to us by fellow providers and other agencies of such women.

In practical terms, and in fulfilment of our object that we make our services available and accessible to all women regardless of financial means, we wrote off each year approximately $10,000 in fees owed to us by women who had undertaken to pay off by instalment the cost of their operation. We did not want to turn ourselves into debt collectors and we recognised that as women are on lower incomes than men and, oftentimes, had carer and other responsibilities, they were simply not in a position to pay us back even though they wanted to.


2002 brought big changes for Bessie!

During 2002 we struck financial difficulties precipitated by ‘bigger picture’ factors which were beyond our control (see attached pamphlet). This lead to a decision by our Board of Directors to sell, in August 2002, our business and premises to a British multi-national, Marie Stopes International.

2002 was a very difficult year for our organisation – we remain saddened that we are not running a termination of pregnancy service as we continue to recognise that that is one of the most effective ways to raise the standard of quality of care in abortion services. In practical terms it also remains the most effective way in which the feminist women’s health movement can provide a safe and affordable abortion service to women.

The achievements of The Bessie Smyth Foundation in the 25 years that we owned and managed The Powell Street Clinic

  • The fact that the Women’s Liberation Movement had a reputable and high standard business and premises to sell is, in itself, a huge achievement;

  • In the 25 years we owned and managed The Powell Street Clinic we provided over 42,000 safe and affordable abortions to women of all ages in the reproductive years; to women of many cultures; to women of all income brackets;

  • We provided those 42,000 women with high quality, individualised care and support in a non-directive and non-judgemental manner;

  • We provided training and employment for numerous doctors and counselling staff in that 25 years – doctors trained by The Bessie Smyth Foundation were sought after by fellow providers – all of the doctors working for us last year, who wanted to stay in the field of abortion, quickly found employment with fellow providers; all of our counsellors were sought after and quickly snapped up once the sale was concluded;

  • We provided an income for many, many women over the years who worked as counsellors at Bessie;
  • We provided supervision and placements for a number of university students over the years;

  • We maintained a commitment, in the face of adverse policy changes from federal and state governments over the years, to access to abortion for the marginalised and the disadvantaged in our society – this included our willingness to see women who were ‘illegal’ migrants (illegal by the federal government’s definition that is); women who were sex workers; women on methadone programmes; women exiting the prison system or still in the prison system; women with drug or alcohol-related problems – and all of these women were treated with dignity and respect;

  • We maintained the most extensive and comprehensive referral information for our clients – whether it was to drug and alcohol agencies or to women’s health centres or to welfare agencies our Resources Room housed a huge amount of referral information;

  • We maintained and updated our resources regularly such as our risks and complications information sheet; our aftercare information sheet; our multilingual information; information about the procedure; information about methods of contraception;

  • We maintained membership of the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) and compliance with their guidelines so to be eligible to undertake a selected number of pathology tests; we maintained membership of the Infection Control Association so to stay on top of changes to infection control procedures and to contribute to debates in the field of infection control;

  • We maintained links with the women’s health centre movement via the peak body Women’s Health NSW; with the community sector movement via membership of the NSW Council of Social Services; with fellow abortion providers through links with the Abortion Providers Federation of Australasia; with the international women’s health movement via organisations such as the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights based in Amsterdam, the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network; and with developments in the politics of abortion and abortion service delivery via participation in the group, Women’s Abortion Action Campaign, and other abortion rights initiatives over the years such as the Liverpool Abortion Defence Campaign (1976 to 1978), the Right to Choose Coalition (1982-1988) and the NSW Abortion Rights Coalition (approx 1988 to 1994). In terms of developing resources for women of all religions we maintained links with the US-based abortion rights group, Catholics for a Free Choice.

2003 brings renewal and a sense of purpose!

We have relocated to Auburn and our current service provision is as follows:

  • Pregnancy decision-making counselling;

  • Pre and post-abortion counselling – either face-to-face or by phone;

  • Picking up women either from their home (if they live in the metropolitan area and have no supports around them) or from Strathfield or Central Railway Station if coming in from rural areas; then transporting them to the clinic they have booked into; staying with them to be there to support them and help them interpret and understand what is happening; assisting women find affordable accommodation if an overnight stay is required; transporting the woman back to the railway station to catch the return train home the next day;

  • Negotiating reduced fees with abortion clinics for women who contact us because they cannot afford the price quoted by the clinic;

  • Negotiating with a clinic that our staff can go into surgery with a woman, if she requests it, and can stay there to support her during the procedure;

  • we are providing a consultancy by phone or face-to-face to community workers; health professionals; student groups; stakeholders in the abortion service field to update their knowledge in regard to the following:
    - current issues in abortion service delivery;
    - methodology issues;
    - public health aspects of abortion;
    - quality counselling and quality care in abortion services;
    - ascertaining women’s needs so to ensure abortion services are run in a woman-centred and non-judgemental way;
    - continued debate about methods of contraception and the role of the drug companies and international trade agreements in distribution of drugs.

  • we will provide resources and training upon request;

  • we will continue to work with providers and networks to ensure women’s access to safe and affordable abortion;

  • we have been developing resources throughout 2003 to improve knowledge in the general community about the range of abortion services available and what requirements they may have for women to access their service and about the issue of abortion overall.

In the longer term we hope to transform our current level of services to a fully funded counselling, information and advocacy service for all NSW women, modelled on the Queensland agency, Children by Choice, which has been providing Queensland women with phone and face-to-face counselling around pregnancy options, information and advocacy for more than 30 years.

A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY FOR PHILANTHROPISTS AND SUPPORTERS OF A WOMAN’S RIGHT TO CHOOSE ABORTION

For those who are interested to be involved in this project to establish a telephone and face-to-face counselling information and advocacy service, Bessie is providing a unique opportunity for benefactors and others interested in women’s access to quality abortion services to be involved from the ground level. Please contact us for more information.

Legal status of The Bessie Smyth Foundation

The Bessie Smyth Foundation is a company limited by guarantee and we lodge documents (as all companies are required to) with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). Both ASIC and the Australian Taxation Office recognise our organisation as a non-profit company, however, at this point in time we do not have tax deductibility status. We hope to achieve that status later this year after changes to our Memorandum and Articles of Association at our Annual General Meeting in December.

If you require any further information about the Bessie Smyth Foundation please do not hesitate to contact us.

Prepared by Margaret Kirkby, Coordinator
The Bessie Smyth Foundation
39 North Parade
Auburn NSW 2144
PH: 61-2-9649-9744
FAX: 61-2-9649-8144